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March 2007 - Home Automation Part 2 - page 2

I Want My MTV … In That Room Over There
In the good old days, distributing audio and video signals to various components around the home meant running cable – lots and lots of cable, be it speaker wire, CAT-5, or component video. Today, this is probably still the most reliable way to go, particularly if you want to send high-definition video to multiple locations. Many A/V receivers offer a quick and easy multi-room solution by including outputs and amplification to send stereo audio and composite video to additional zones. For a more advanced solution, you’ll need a distribution amplifier from a company like Gefen, Extron, or Key Digital. Oh, and cables … lots and lots of long cables. When selecting a distribution amplifier, you want to consider the following: How many sources do you want to input, to how many sources do you want to send the signal, do you want to send audio and video and, if sending video, what kind? During your search, you’ll see designations like 1x4 or 2x8. The first number tells you how many sources you can input, the second tells you how many you can output simultaneously. (Make sure you buy a distribution amplifier and not a switcher, which only lets you view one of the output signals at a time.) For instance, if you want to distribute high-definition video and digital audio, you might select Gefen’s 1x3 HDMI distribution amplifier ($350), which will accept one HDMI source (such as a high-definition set-top box or DVD player) and feed it to three HDMI-equipped components (TVs, A/V receivers, etc.) at the same time. This solution does require running HDMI cables to each of the three locales, and you have to watch the same thing in each location. If the additional zones are far away, you may need another amplifier to boost the signal, or you might try a box like Gefen’s HDMI CAT-5 Extreme Extender that converts the signal to CAT-5 so that you can run it over a much longer distance.

Pretty exciting stuff, huh? Distribution amplifiers may not get your blood flowing, but there are actually some very exciting things going on in the world of whole-house A/V distribution. Thanks to home networking technologies, it’s not only possible but downright easy – and inexpensive – to move A/V signals around the home. If you have a computer and a high-speed home network, you already own most of the ingredients required to distribute audio and video in the 21st century. Digital music and photos are now common to our daily experience, and streaming and downloadable video is catching up quickly. All it takes to distribute your computer or Media Center PC’s digital media files to a TV or A/V receiver is a digital media receiver (DMR), a device that talks to your computer over your home network to access and play those files. This DMR may be a standalone box, like D-Link’s new MediaLounge wireless HD media player ($250), or it may be built into another product, like the Xbox 360, Tivo Series 2 DVR, or HP MediaSmart TV. Make sure you select a DMR that can accommodate all of the file types you want to send; some are audio-only, while others can play high-definition content that you’ve downloaded or recorded to your Media Center PC. At CES 2007, almost every big-name manufacturer was showing off a device with DMR functionality, from Sony’s VAIO WA1 wireless music streamer to JVC’s Sophisti HTIB lineup to Sharp’s networkable LCD TV with built-in DMR. In most cases, you can stream this content wirelessly via WiFi or over a hardwired Ethernet network; thus far, the wired approach has been the most reliable option for streaming high-definition video. WiFi just didn’t have the bandwidth to handle it. The arrival of 802.11n may change that; HP, for one, has adopted dual-band 802.11n for their 2007 lineup of MediaSmart TVs to encourage wireless HD streaming. Another option is Ethernet-over-power line technology, which lets you access your home network through your electrical outlets. Netgear’s HDX101 and Panasonic’s HD-PLC Ethernet adapters are designed specifically to stream HD content over your power line, and cable and satellite companies are exploring ways to incorporate this technology into their set-top boxes to make it even easier to move your recorded TV content around the house.

To some extent, iTunes and Apple users have been left out of the fun, as most DMRs are PC-centric, designed to play nice with Microsoft’s DRM-protected Windows Media files but not Apple’s protected audio and video formats. Of course, there is a seemingly endless list of iPod-compatible products through which you can move your protected content, which is okay for audio but not entirely desirable for video, especially as the resolution of iTunes video downloads increases. When it comes to taking iTunes content directly off the computer and distributing it around the house, Apple’s Airport Express lets you wirelessly stream music files to other audio components, and Elgato Systems offers some TV-tuning and video distribution options. The big news, though, is the arrival of the $299 Apple TV standalone digital media player, which will allow you to stream protected audio and video files, including high-definition, from your Mac or PC via Ethernet or 802.11n. Given the popularity of the video iPod and iTunes video-download service, this device could open a whole new audience to the joys of multi-room video distribution.

A Smarter Home Demands A Smarter Remote
As I mentioned in part one, a smart home is really only as smart as the devices that let you control it. In some respects, this is even more critical for the DIYer who has mixed and matched an assortment of products and systems and is looking for a way to control it all. The in-wall keypads and handheld touch-panels that frequent a high-end installation don’t make many appearances in the entry-level realm; here, we scan the landscape for universal remote controls that can offer similar functionality at a fraction of the cost. As is always the case, the more functionality you want, the more you should be prepared to spend. Don’t cut corners in this category: your enjoyment of all that DIY labor will ultimately be diminished if you’re dissatisfied with the controller. Some of the questions to ask yourself as you search for the perfect universal remote are, how many devices can it control, how easy is it to program, do you want hard buttons, a touchscreen, or a combination, if it’s a touch-screen, how thoroughly can you customize the screens to suit your set-up, can you access the Internet or tap into your home network and, finally, can it control products that are behind a cabinet or in another room?

That last one is especially important when we’re talking about home automation. How convenient is a remote that allows control of a wide range of products but only uses line-of-sight IR technology, which means you need to physically point it at the products you wish to control? Some remotes have RF technology built in, which you can exploit by purchasing an RF extender device. This certainly helps, but basic RF can be limited in range. As I described above, one benefit of Z-Wave and other mesh-networking technologies is that they use two-way RF communication, which helps improve range and reliability. Logitech and Monster have added Z-Wave functionality to some of their remotes: Monster’s $500 Central Control AVL-300 and Logitech’s $400 Harmony 890 Advanced and $500 Harmony 1000. These are full-featured universal remotes that will not only handle your standard IR tasks in the home theater, but can also control Z-Wave-enabled lighting and other automation devices. UEI has also announced plans to release several Z-wave-enabled remotes. If you’re in the market for a universal remote and think you might want to add automation products at some point in the future, these remotes are worth a look. They provide an exciting glimpse of things to come in terms of DIY home control.

For those of you who plan to do a lot of media streaming over your home network, you might consider a remote that, through WiFi, can tap into your home network and allow you to view and control your media player functions via the remote’s interface. UEI’s Nevo software platform can do just that, but it’s currently only available through custom channels. The company markets its own Nevo remote and licenses the technology to Crestron for their TPMC-4X remote. Philips’ Pronto RC9800i has a similar feature and is available directly through consumer channels.

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